Advice for Working with Vendors
Although librarians and vendors have shared a symbiotic relationship for as long as libraries have existed, there seems to be an unhealthy and unnecessary level of time and energy spent tussling with and complaining about vendors. Having worked on both sides of the library/vendor ecosystem, I wanted to try and share some perspectives learnt through experience. What follows are some best practices for working with vendors. These aren’t earth-shatteringly innovative, but I bring them to your attention because I have found them to be effective in maintaining positive, mutually beneficial relationships with vendors.
Acknowledge your differences. As a librarian, you have chosen a profession that is committed to core values like equal access to information, intellectual freedom, and furthering education. What’s more, you most likely work for a not-for-profit institution, which has its own set of similarly idealistic institutional values. Between your personal values and your institutional values, you have a distinct perspective. Vendors have their own personal and institutional sets of values that are often in stark contrast to our own. Vendor representatives often have business or marketing backgrounds. They were attracted to these disciplines for a reason. And the businesses they work for have values like effective promotion of products and services and increasing market share. One of their values - gasp! - is to increase profits and/or the value of their company’s stock. At this point many of my colleagues say this ought not to be so, that knowledge should not be commoditized, etc. You’ll get no argument from me on those ideals, but in the meantime...
Don’t let idealism get in the way of progress. It pains me to see peers spend countless hours and vast reserves of energy repeating some version of “We are in it for the right reasons, but they are in it for the wrong reason: profit.” While episodic venting can be cathartic, dwelling on the negative aspects of the relationship between vendors and libraries, or any relationship for that matter, can be debilitating. The daily amount of time and energy each of us has is finite. If we spend it complaining about the things we cannot change, we have little left to spend pursuing the things we can.
Not only is this bad for our organizations, it can be detrimental to our careers. I’m reminded of a former co-worker who once told me he was passing over an intelligent, dynamic, dedicated individual for promotion because she “focused too much on the problems, not the solutions.” Don’t let this be you. Certainly, if you see an opportunity to make the library/vendor ecosystem better, act on it, but if you hear yourself repeating the same gripes again and again, consider accepting the current reality and applying your time and energy to doing your best with what you’ve got.
Dream big. Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But a common side-effect of getting stuck in a cycle of defeatism is that you become less ambitious. When your general outlook is fatalistic, you are less likely to assume that you can accomplish bold, innovative initiatives. “Why try?” or “That will never work” are frequent refrains of people who see themselves as victims in an unfair reality. A colleague of mine has an uncanny radar for spotting these types. He often describes them as individuals who, if you read between the lines, are constantly saying some form of: “I’ve tried nothing and am out of ideas.”
On the contrary, I’ve found that most of the successful people I know are those who accept their reality and then focus their efforts toward doing great things within the context of that reality. It’s not that these individuals don’t dream; they most certainly do. But their dreams aren’t contingent on the world changing. Rather, their dreams seek to change the world, if only just a little. By accepting the limitations, constraints, and challenges that are out of their control, these individuals can focus their energy, ingenuity and passion on developing the best solutions possible through those mechanisms that are within their control.
Ask yourself: What can you accomplish with vendors on behalf of your library today? Spend the majority of your time and energy making the best progress you can within the constraints of your present reality, rather than gnashing your teeth over the ways things ought to be. The results can be pretty awesome.
Explain how the vendor fits into your story. Ever been asked to donate your money? What inclines you to say Yes or No? Are you more likely to hand over a fiver to a person on the street who says, “Give me money, please,” or to a charity that solicits you by sharing their specific cause and describes how your money will be used? Knowing where your money is going and what effect it will have is powerful context (and motivation) that influences the decision you make. Similarly, too few librarians share their specific context when engaging with vendors. Imagine the conversation from the vendor’s perspective. They hear: “Your product costs too much. Discount it more, please.” Stripped of context, your request is unlikely to motivate the vendor. However, what if you explained that a cost reduction would allow your public library to use this product to achieve one of its key strategic goals of supporting local economic development by offering job searching skills workshops? While this is no guarantee of success, it certainly improves your odds of getting a break.
Too often libraries don’t share important context that has the potential to change the relationship between vendor and library from merely transactional to mutually beneficial.
Find out how you fit into the vendor’s story. Libraries are so caught up in their own narrative, they rarely spend time asking the vendor what’s happening with them. We tend to assume vendors are profit-seeking machines without personality or nuance. This is not the case. Vendors are collectives of people. Vendors have unique cultures, goals, priorities, initiatives, value systems and so on. Investing some time learning what the vendor is focused on will help you know how your library fits (or doesn’t fit) into the vendor’s narrative. An upstart vendor might be more interested in securing a well-known reference customer than in realizing a huge profit margin. If that’s the case, you might be able to get in on the ground floor with them in exchange for a testimonial or co-presentation at a conference. An established vendor might be more concerned about seeing its fledgling new product find its sea legs. In that case you might be able to negotiate the new product as an add-on in exchange for continuing to buy the vendor’s core product. These are examples where both parties are accomplishing their goals, the ideal conclusion to any negotiation.
Notice how vendor stories differ from library stories. While library stories tend to revolve around library core values, vendor stories tend to revolve around vendor values like market share, new product adoption and customer references. It makes sense that they are different and it’s okay that they are different: libraries and vendors are different.
Treat vendor representatives with respect. It’s bad form, not to mention bad for business, to treat a vendor discourteously. Sure you will disagree on things and yes, you may not care for a particular representative’s style, but there is never a reason to treat a vendor disrespectfully. First, try to remember how challenging a job the rep has. The travel; the daily rejection; the pressure of quotas; the internal politics; and the challenge of keeping all those ever-changing products straight. It’s a high-turnover job for a reason. Second, treating a rep badly - treating anyone badly - reflects far more on you than them. Is that the kind of reputation you want to cultivate for yourself, or the kind of behavior you want to model for your team? Third, burning a bridge is bad for business. Even if you believe that eviscerating a vendor today will do you no harm, how can you be certain that the vendor won’t acquire a company whose products your institution cannot live without? Or that the rep won’t change jobs and show up next time representing another vendor? In either case, you might find yourself regretting your decision. Finally, it’s important to remember that you are representing your institution when you work with vendors and your duty in that capacity is to look out for the institution's best interests, not use the vendor interaction as a platform for waging personal vendettas.
I encourage you to try out these techniques the next time a vendor rep walks into your library. Don’t get hung-up on your differences; accept that there are things about the vendor/library ecosystem you cannot change; dream big within the current reality; explain how the vendor could fit into your library’s story and then listen to understand how your library could fit into the vendor’s story; and no matter what, treat the vendor the way you’d like to be treated.
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RALEIGH, NC—Season 18 of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch is now available for free as part of the NC LIVE online collection at nclive.org. The 30-episode season features authors such as Scott Ellsworth, Bridgette Lacy, Lee Smith, Kathy Reichs, Pam Saulsby and more.
North Carolina Bookwatch is the state’s premier literary series, bringing the Tar Heel State’s best and brightest Southern writers to the small screen. In every interview, host D.G. Martin sheds light on authors’ lives, books and the state’s indelible imprint on their works.
NC LIVE is a statewide cooperative of 201 libraries that provides access to online articles, ebooks, streaming videos and digital newspapers. This content is purchased by libraries and available to all North Carolina residents who have a library card.
“As an extension of the University of North Carolina system, UNC-TV serves North Carolinians as the state's largest classroom—and NCLIVE serves citizens as our state's largest online library. North Carolina Bookwatch and NC LIVE—it’s an obvious and natural fit,” says Katy Loebrich, Producer/Director of the show. "Through a conversation with leaders at the State Library Network, North Carolina Bookwatch creator, host and tireless promoter D.G. Martin and I realized what a powerful resource NC LIVE offers to lifelong learners, whatever their age, in our state."
“NC LIVE is delighted to add North Carolina Bookwatch content to our collection of online resources,” says Rob Ross, NC LIVE’s Executive Director. “All told, the NC LIVE collection now consists of 483+ million online articles, streaming videos, ebooks and more.”
UNC-TV is committed to making educational and entertaining media available to all of North Carolina citizens and this new relationship with NC LIVE allows the network to do that in an exciting, new way.
To access the North Carolina Bookwatch episodes, use the search box on the NC LIVE homepage, nclive.org. For specific episodes, search for the author’s name or browse all Season 18 episodes by searching “North Carolina Bookwatch.” On the search results page, the links to the North Carolina Bookwatch episodes are listed by title in the lower right-hand corner of the screen in the "videos" box. Clicking the title will take you directly to the video on UNC-TV’s website, unctv.org.
Consensus, Conflict and the Leader’s Responsibility
Organizations that overemphasize consensus drive out talent, underperform, and lose money, all the while maintaining a harmonious facade. Walking the halls of an organization that overemphasizes consensus, things appear to be fine: No one is arguing. Employees are smiling and nodding in unison. The organizational Kool-Aid has been spiked with consensus and everyone is drinking. At a surface-level, who can argue that a group of people on the same page will be more effective than a group of people in conflict? But unless the conflict has already taken place and resulted in this consensus, your organization could well be harmoniously running off a cliff.
Consensus at all costs
The best organizations I’ve been a part of consisted of individuals who possessed the following attributes:
Not every member of the organization possessed all of these attributes, and even those who did possessed them to varying degrees, but these attributes were well represented across the organization as a whole.
Take a moment to think of someone you know who possesses most of these attributes. If a colleague doesn’t come to mind, perhaps it’s a family member or friend. Now imagine how that person would behave as a team member in your organization. Would they eagerly yield to the organizational idea du jour? Would they never raise their voice to make a point? Would they stay silent rather than question a plan they had serious doubts about?
Let’s say your library had the resources to launch one new program and you had narrowed down various possibilities to two finalists. Half of the team supports program A and half, including the person you have in mind, supports program B. How would your person respond if those supporting program A declared that their program should be the one to launch with only the flimsiest of supporting arguments? Would your person accept this without a strong rationale? Would they yield their own position, a position they are convinced is superior, without debate in order to preserve organizational harmony? Of course not.
We all know that conflict can be good or bad, constructive or destructive. Bad conflict is conflict for selfish reasons: Ego, greed, laziness, self-interest. Good conflict is the conflict of ideas. “Program A will have 8 main benefits, while program B will have 5.” “But program B is core to our organization’s mission, while program A is only tangentially related.” If you have two groups of employees arguing in this way, congratulations: You are going to outperform your peer organizations every time. Why? Because whatever position ultimately emerges as the winner will have been fully (and sometimes loudly) vetted by employees who are engaged, passionate, committed and who are actively demonstrating conviction.
The type of person who yields to consensus at all costs usually lacks these attributes. If you are not passionate about your job and the customers you serve, what difference does it make which direction the organization chooses to go? If you are not creative, there’s little chance you’ll come up with an innovative approach to a problem that traditionalists might view as disruptive. If you lack conviction and commitment, it’s easy to be easygoing. And if you lack integrity, you can change your beliefs as easily and often as you change your clothes. Leaders should weed out employees lacking these qualities, replacing them with candidates intentionally selected because they have a track record of exhibiting these qualities.
Do so and watch how quickly your organization flourishes.
Creating a Culture of Constructive Conflict: The Leader’s Responsibility
In my career I’ve been blessed to hold positions that have taken me into hundreds of libraries. I’ve seen libraries that exhibited healthy conflict and I’ve seen libraries that exhibited unhealthy conflict. But by far, the most common library culture I’ve encountered is a conflict-averse culture. Conflict-aversion is dangerous. The crucial conversations not being had, whether due to fear or a lack of passion, creativity, conviction, integrity or commitment, are the conversations that yield smarter decisions.
A leader casts a long shadow over an organization. As the leader, you must set the example you want to see others follow. If you demonstrate discomfort when encountering conflict, or punish those who openly disagree, the organization will quickly take note. On the other hand, you can encourage healthy conflict by exhibiting it yourself and rewarding others when you see them engage in it. Your organization will notice and, to the extent to which they are comfortable, will emulate your behavior.
Here are some practical tips for creating a culture of healthy conflict--
- Talk about conflict with your organization. At an all-staff meeting talk about constructive conflict and the benefits you’ve seen it produce. Tell a personal story about a time you engaged in a constructive conflict - preferably a story where your idea did not win the day - and share how you felt in the moment when your idea was not selected (frustrated), and then, later, how you felt when you realized the good reasons your idea wasn’t selected (relieved). Emphasize that this process and these emotions are normal and not to be avoided. Conflict isn’t about individuals winning and losing; it’s about arriving at the best decision for the organization.
- Share an open debate. The last time I checked, organizations face no shortage of difficult decisions at the Leadership Team level. Choose a relevant debate that you have refereed in your leadership team meeting. Let your leaders know what you are up to and why so they are not caught off-guard. Then share which choice was made and why. Admit that you can’t predict the future, but that you feel you made the best choice possible because you and your team openly disagreed, but kept talking, and in doing so sharpened your rationale for making the decision you finally arrived at. By sharing that the Leadership Team has disagreements, but ultimately rallies behind whatever decision is made, you signal to the rest of the organization that this is a behavioral norm you endorse.
- Destigmatize mistakes. When people act irrationally, fear often has something to do with it. If someone feels that they will be criticized or penalized for making a mistake, they are unlikely to admit they’ve made one. This leads to unhealthy conflict, as an individual or a team will stubbornly defend an approach because they fear the organizational consequences of admitting they got it wrong. This is self-preservation masquerading as conviction. As a leader, your responsibility is to create a culture that accepts mistakes. You don’t want to reward mistakes, but you want to acknowledge that they are a normal byproduct of an organization that is striving for greatness. Initiate a “mistake of the week” program. Encourage managers at all levels of the organization to share a mistake they’ve recently made. It could be something they forgot, a communication gaffe, a presentation that missed the mark, or an idea that turned out to be a real clunker. The point is to demonstrate that (a) you are human, (b) you aren’t afraid to admit your mistakes, and (c) that the mistake led to something better. Follow up your mistake of the week with what you learned from it. These don’t have to be career-altering epiphanies; in fact, they will often be some variation of “and so after that, I’ve decided to try plan B.”
- Reward conflict. You read that right. Especially in conflict-averse organizations, you need to create incentives for those who are willing to engage in healthy conflict. Gimmicks are okay. I worked with a library that had a long-standing “bacon saver” award that rewarded employees who “saved our bacon” by spotting an issue before it was too late, or pointed out the flaw in a plan before it went into effect. While this behavior isn’t explicitly conflict, it emphasizes a questioning culture and questioning (for the right reasons) is the first step toward achieving constructive conflict.
- Establish ground rules. Conflict is uncomfortable for many people. Depending on a person’s upbringing, their experience of conflict may have been infrequent and unconstructive. Or worse, their experience of conflict may have been all too frequent, culminating in domestic violence. All of this is to say that conflict in the workplace, even if well-intentioned, can elicit a strong fight-or-flight response. So it is critical that you establish clear ground rules for engaging in constructive conflict. Rules like: “Give your coworker an opportunity to finish speaking before responding” or “Repeat back your coworker’s perspective in your own words. Ask them if you got it right.” Limit the rules to 5 or less. Focus on rules that emphasize mutual respect. Place them on placards in meeting rooms. Recite them at the beginning of team meetings. Add them to job postings so you attract candidates who share these values (and repel candidates who do not). The ultimate goal is to inculcate these ground rules into the fabric of your organization to create a culture where coworkers routinely engage in constructive conflict, sometimes intensely, while preserving a mutual respect.
- Tiebreaker. In any healthy organization, there are instances when groups or individuals with opposing viewpoints cannot agree on a path forward. In these cases it is the leader’s responsibility to play tiebreaker. This means that they must hear both sides, choose one, and make it clear to both that (a) the side chosen bears the responsibility of success and (b) the side not chosen is expected to support the other side. Perhaps even more important than making these difficult choices, the leader absolutely must monitor the initiative and hold both sides accountable (one side for succeeding and the other side for supporting). Without accountability, both sides will view the leader’s decision as nothing more than choosing favorites.
The ROI of Constructive Conflict
An organizational culture of constructive conflict is transformative. It is impossible to quantify the impact of a culture in which individuals question, challenge, debate, and ultimately arrive at a consensus as a matter of course. Decision-making is smarter because it is based on the merits of an idea, not the ego, apathy or parochialism of individuals. Innovations occur more frequently because the organization is filled with passionate, creative, intelligent individuals who exhibit conviction, integrity and commitment.
A healthy organization is not quiet. Nor is it filled with amenable bobbleheads eager to agree to anything. As a leader, don’t be lulled by a harmonious facade into thinking that your organization is healthy and successful. Look at the measurable indicators of health and success. How do you rank compared to your peers? Are you making or losing money? How many awards has your organization won? How many innovations has your organization contributed to your industry? These objective metrics will confirm whether your organization’s consensus has been earned through constructive conflict or is the result of conflict-aversion.
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ReferenceUSA offers weekly webinars on a variety of topics--and these webinars are open to patrons from any NC LIVE member library.
Do you have questions about what ReferenceUSA is or how to use the product? Do you need answers? We are here to help! Bring your list of questions to this open question and answer session. We look forward to answering all the questions you have.
ReferenceUSA Search Essentials
Designed for anyone new to using our database, this hour-long session will cover all the basics of getting started with ReferenceUSA. We will cover the four essentials anyone, particularly those new to ReferenceUSA, will want to know in order to successfully use the resource. This is also be a great opportunity for current users to learn some new tips, tricks, and techniques. Lots of time will be reserved at the end of the session for questions.
ReferenceUSA For Starting a Business
Learn how to use ReferenceUSA to complete the research you need to start a business.
- Research your Market
- Research your Competitors
- Research your Potential Customers
Finding People with ReferenceUSA
Designed to help users find people. This session will cover all the basics of pinpointing the right people. We’ll cover how to identify individuals choosing from dozens of search selections that include both demographic and information. Learn new tips, tricks, and techniques that will help you identify the people you’re looking for, fast.
See Natalie's story and others on the NC LIVE Impact website!
(RALEIGH, NC) – A college student in Cherokee County is learning Japanese on her smartphone, while in Raleigh a mother starts her last semester of college with a 3.9 grade point average. An entrepreneur in Stokesdale has a utility patent granted, while a small business owner in Mooresville opens her first retail store. Each credits part of their success to their library, and the tools and information they can access online, anytime, for free through NC LIVE.
These stories and other have been collected in NC LIVE Impact, a new digital library awareness campaign showcasing how residents use North Carolina’s digital library resources to get the information they need to meet their goals---twenty-four hours a day, from any device.
The state’s 201 public and academic libraries have collectively funded the NC LIVE online library since 1998 to ensure every resident has access to quality research materials, streaming videos, and ebooks. The digital library also includes tools for everything from competitive business analysis and market research to academic and professional test prep, genealogy research, and language learning.
All of these resources are costly, but licensing and managing them collectively saves libraries time and money. “NC LIVE spends $3.4 million a year to provide access to content that would cost our member libraries $23 million to acquire on their own. This partnership creates tremendous value for libraries of all types and sizes,” notes NC LIVE Executive Director Rob Ross.
The Impact campaign will run through the end of March 2017, during which time NC LIVE and member libraries will promote digital resources and highlight how they have helped North Carolinians achieve their goals. The campaign includes social media messaging and public radio underwriting to spread the world about NC’s own digital library.
Individuals can learn more and donate to the NC LIVE Foundation at www.nclive.org/impact.
Discovery from the Outside In
I believe we can make libraries more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported. I believe we can accomplish this without a single new idea.
We are all Outsiders
The ideas already exist. They have been and continue to be implemented, evaluated, measured, tweaked, and re-measured. The good ideas stick and the bad ones fall away. Some good ideas have already served their purpose and been displaced by newer ideas better aligned to what people want (and therefore expect) right now. You are already familiar with these ideas. It’s true. You have helped test the ideas, albeit unwittingly, and you already have strong opinions about them.
What am I talking about? What are these ideas I speak of? They are the ideas you find in your life outside of libraries. They are the ideas that shape your experience as a consumer. Whether you are grocery shopping, buying a new blender on Amazon, requesting an Uber, ordering takeout, checking Google Maps for traffic delays, or subscribing to a meal delivery service like Plated, you are engaging with service providers that have invested enormous amounts of time, talent and money to ensure that you have an excellent consumer experience. They make it easy to find what you want; offer intuitive UI; provide a variety of options to meet your specific needs; leverage new technologies like GPS and mobile Apps to let you consume where you are; learn your preferences so these services can make smart, nuanced recommendations; make it simple to order and pay; and work out all the logistics necessary for speedy delivery. They make it so easy.
When we like these services, we keep using them. When we don’t like them, we make them go away by ignoring them. We are all beta testers. We are all members of focus groups. We all have formed opinions about these services. Hate grocery shopping? Try ordering them online and receiving curbside checkout. Hungry for real food, but don’t want to leave your apartment? Order via GrubHub. Need a ride, but want to ensure your driver isn’t going to overcharge you? Uber it. Not sure when to leave home to catch the opening act at a concert? Check Google Maps for a real-time estimate. All of these products and services, and all the others you are thinking of now, are sources of fully market-tested ideas that can be adopted into our libraries to make them more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported.
The Best You’ve Ever Had
Consumers have a voracious appetite for products and services that they perceive improve their quality of life. Once consumers become accustomed to them, their expectations for all products and services rise accordingly.
An example from my own life: at my house we receive lots of packages. My wife and I both regularly shop online and there are weeks when we receive at least one package a day, usually arriving in a cardboard box. When the companies we order from use a private carrier like FedEx or UPS, the packages get delivered to our doorstep rain or shine. When the weather is bad, the carrier will put the cardboard box in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain or snow. Because of this relatively simple additional service of “bagging” our boxes, we receive our packages on time every time. Therefore our expectation for all carriers is on time delivery. When a company we order from uses the United States Postal Service (USPS) as their carrier, we experience something different. USPS packages generally arrive on time, but the individual delivery person will not deliver the package if there is so much as a hint of rain or snow in the air. Her concern that our products not get damaged is appreciated, but as meteorology is not her forte, we often wait several overcast but otherwise dry days for a package to be left on our doorstep. Depending on what we are waiting for, this can be annoying. One time I happened to be in the driveway when the USPS delivery person pulled up. I asked about their weather policy, and she confirmed that she would be held responsible if a package was damaged by the elements. I told her I understood her caution, but that other carriers like FedEx and UPS simply bag the box and leave it and that has worked brilliantly. Her response: “They don’t give us bags.”
My goal in providing this example is not to disparage the USPS, but to illustrate that (a) great ideas to improve service are not hard to find (FedEx and UPS are not attempting to keep secret the fact that they empower their delivery team to use their best judgment and supply them with bags), and (b) a consumer’s expectations are set by the best service experiences they have ever had.
Before we go further, we must think about three fundamental business questions, for the answers to these questions will inform our definition of a “good” idea and will help us determine where in the vast wilderness of other industries we should look for these good ideas that can improve our libraries. First, what business are libraries in? Second and third, what do we call the people we serve and what do they really want from us?
What business are libraries in?
Libraries provide e-resources, so does that mean we are in the ecommerce business? Libraries provide physical materials, so perhaps that makes us a retailer. Libraries also provide reference and instruction services, so does that make us consultants and educators? Maybe we are museums; after all, we preserve and display cultural heritage materials. Many public libraries are their community’s hub, hosting public meetings. Does that mean they are in the facilities management industry? Got a Makerspace? Perhaps that makes you a laboratory.
Our diversity of services, missions, content, physical spaces, etc. are often a source of pride in librarianship, and there is merit to that. But from a branding perspective, this is hopelessly confusing. Librarians roll their eyes when someone naively assumes that we deal with physical books all day. What’s annoying to us about this outdated notion is also revealing; it demonstrates that, for at least 500 years, libraries have benefitted from a durable, recognizable brand. That kind of longevity is the envy of just about every industry outside of places of worship and hospitals. Libraries as “the buildings with books” really has stuck with people, probably because it’s not difficult to remember and, for most people, evokes positive associations.
Nonetheless, our historical brand doesn’t accurately reflect today’s libraries and needs to be refreshed. But what do we replace it with? What is our modern brand? Note the singular. Not “brands.” Brand. Here our diversity works against us. We have an identity crisis. We are so many things to so many people, we cannot distill it to a modern equivalent of “the buildings with books.” In lieu of a modern brand, our patrons revert to our historical brand. We can’t blame them; we haven’t offered an alternative brand that can compete.
Brand confusion aside, being many things to many people has other, internal, impacts to libraries. How many employees do you have at your library? Now name a business with the same number or fewer employees that is exceptional in more than three lines of business. More than two? There is a reason for this. It is incredibly difficult to be great in one line of business. Libraries, even small ones, attempt to be great at several. The result is predictable; we are good at some, okay or worse at others, and all the while we feel pulled in too many directions at once. The stoics among us say they wear many hats. Their desire to serve the needs of patrons is admirable, but stretched too thin we can’t give them the best.
It’s not all bad news. Because libraries do many things, we have many things to choose from when determining what our core business (our area of expertise) will be. What’s more, because we do not compete with each other the way for-profit businesses compete, but rather have a long history of strategic partnerships and reciprocal agreements, we can have the best of both worlds. We can choose our individual library’s core business, and we can continue to provide other services to our patrons by “outsourcing.” Outsourcing could take the form of partnering with another library or group of libraries, joining or forming a cooperative, partnering with a local business, or simply purchasing a vendor solution. The point is to focus on the core business your library is best at and supplement it with other services by way of partners, co-ops, and vendors. Assuming you make sound business choices, you can offer patrons a suite of best-in-class services.
A rose by any other name
The name you attach to someone can change the way you view him or her. Having worked in or with libraries my entire career, I’ve heard the people we serve referred to as “patrons,” “users,” “faculty,” “undergraduates,” “community members,” and on occasion much worse. Each of these designations connotes particular roles, qualities, social standings, likes and dislikes, etc. What is limiting about all these terms is that they are library-centric. They allow us to define the people we serve as patrons of the library, our space, and as such we feel empowered to apply library-centric criteria of satisfaction to them. This insular view of the people we serve does us no favors. First, rather than describing our potential customer-base, all of these terms account only for our active customer-base. By focusing only on our current base, we greatly reduce our ability to grow our customer-base because we don’t spend sufficient time and effort determining what is deterring un-patrons from using the library. This approach would be anathema to any revenue-generating business where anything less than year-over-year growth is seen as failure. Second, these terms imply an overstated differentiation between various types of library users. Are faculty members and undergraduates different in some ways? Of course. But seen through a broader lens both groups are information seekers, making them 99% the same. Whatever differences in service expectations they exhibit have more to do with their generational gap than whether they assign the homework or turn it in. Finally, these terms are, to varying degrees, proprietary to libraries. They lure us into thinking that the people we serve see the library as fundamentally different than the other service providers they consume from.
I advocate that we call the people we serve consumers. Why? Because by thinking of the people we serve as consumers, and not as patrons, users, faculty or any of those other terms, we force ourselves to consider that these people view the library through the same lens they view other providers of goods and services. In the typical day of a consumer, the library is one of 20 or more providers they transact with. They might begin the day consuming breakfast (one) at home while watching TV (two); drive to work listening to the radio (three); stop for gas (four); check the news online (five); IM their significant other about an annoying coworker (six); buy a coffee (seven); order lunch (eight); pay bills online (nine); check the status of a delivery (ten); log-in to a WebEx meeting (eleven); and so on.
Each of those service experiences shapes their expectations for all other experiences. If my weather App automatically knows my location, why doesn’t my library App? Once a consumer knows a service is possible, that service becomes an expectation. Thinking of the people we serve as consumers, rather than any of those library-centric terms, reminds us that we don’t get to set our own bar for great service.
What a Patron Wants / What a Consumer Needs
What do library consumers want? The same things you want when you are the consumer:
- A familiar experience
- No learning curve
- Integration with their favorite technologies
- Great customer service.
Walking into a library (or landing on its homepage) does not lower these consumer expectations. Libraries do not get a free pass. As long as we are in the ecommerce industry, we compete with Amazon and eBay. As long as we are in the retail industry, we compete with Apple and Whole Foods. As long as we are in the professional services industry, we compete with financial advisors and real estate agents. We can say that libraries are fundamentally different and, therefore, impervious to the standards set by these other industries. But you cannot undo the expectations that the consumers walking in your doors or searching your website bring with them, expectations set by all the other service providers they consume from.
The Fine Art of Trendspotting
The aim of this article is not to provide you a list of readymade services to implement in your library. Any such list would be oblivious to your library’s unique situation. What’s more, any services I suggest now will be dated soon after publication. Rather, the aim of this article is to provide some illustrative examples of services in industries outside of libraries that consumers are fond of and, therefore, accustomed to. Some of these services will have long shelf lives, while others will soon be displaced by other services deemed superior by consumers. My goal in providing these specific examples of services is to help you develop the skill of “trendspotting,” a skill that will outlive any particular idea or trend.
What can we learn from ecommerce?
Noticed anything different about online ads lately? Do you ever feel, like the cast of South Park did in the 2015 episode “Sponsored Content,” that ads seem to be following you? Is it eerie how much they seem to know about your interests, habits, desires, affinities, insecurities? Because online power players like Google and Facebook have invested heavily in companies like DoubleClick and Atlas, respectively, which track and analyze your online and offline purchasing behavior, the ads you are presented with are much more targeted to your interests (Steel & Angwin, 2010; Madrigal, 2012; Sterling, 2014).
For some, this level of tracking and dynamic responding in the form of spot-on suggestions for products and services is alarming. Those concerned with privacy have taken to using new browser features like Chrome’s Incognito, Firefox and Safari’s Private Browsing, or Internet Explorer’s (IE) InPrivate Browsing, which, among other things, prevent companies from tracking your behavior across multiple websites. There are limitations to each of these features and, as you would imagine, those with privacy concerns are skeptical that companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft, all of which benefit greatly by collecting and analyzing masses of data, are going to allow users of their browsers to completely shut off the data tap.
For others, the analytics that companies like Google have put to use are perceived as a major convenience. Ads based on my searching behavior and location are much more likely to be of interest than the blanket, “dumb” ads I see on television or in print newspapers. If I’m going to have to see ads as I use the web, I’d rather they know me well enough to suggest relevant products and services. The more data a provider has, the more accurate it can be when making suggestions to you. Amazon’s recommender service is a great example of a service provider taking what it knows about its customers - location, gender, age, interests, likes/dislikes via ratings, search behavior elsewhere on the web, and consumption habits - and turning that data into useful suggestions. Amazon introduces us to authors that share similar traits with those we like. Amazon suggests that we purchase more of our favorite marinara sauce since it’s been a month since we bought any and are probably running low. Amazon knows that we’ve been searching for brown socks elsewhere online and suggests a few brands we might like. Consumer behavior tells us that, for many, the convenience is worth the lack of privacy.
But what does this mean for libraries? Incredibly accurate recommendation services have raised the expectations of consumers, who now expect the ecommerce providers they interact with to know them and make uncannily on point recommendations. What do you suppose these consumers think when they use the library’s discovery system? Are you hoping they lower their expectations?
What could libraries do to live up to consumers’ expectations? We have assets that could be put to powerful use. We have more item metadata and more expertise creating and interpreting it than anyone. Surely this gives us an advantage over other service providers. Are we willing to monitor our users’ search behavior, assuming they opt-in? Or are we willing to purchase it from one of a hundred-plus firms that are tracking it already (Angwin, 2010)? Could a national library association play a leadership role in purchasing it for us at a discount? Imagine how powerful library discovery systems could be were they to leverage user search behavior data and item metadata to make smart recommendations.
What can we learn from how we consume news online?
In February 2016 the scientific community reported a finding that excited the mainstream media. Scientists had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding, fulfilling the final prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. I first learned of this on the New York Times’ homepage. Until that moment, I had never considered the possibility of hearing black holes collide; now it was the one and only thing in the world I needed to hear. So I clicked on the story and was taken to a multi-dimensional webpage (Overbye, 2016). I could read about the discovery and how the sound was recorded; I could watch a narrated video about the formation and collision of black holes; I could see pictures of the scientists who made the discovery and the instruments they used to record the distant sound; I could click through a slideshow called “An Earthling’s Guide to Black Holes” to glean some context; and, most importantly, I could listen to a 12 second audio clip of two black holes colliding. I did all of these things and felt my curiosity was entirely satisfied by this “article.”
Then I wondered how this same article would appear in my library’s aggregated database. We often tell faculty and students that we have the full run of the NYT and, when it comes to historical, born-print articles, aggregated access via the web is quite a convenience over microfiche to researchers. But what about contemporary articles like this one describing the sound of two black holes colliding? What would the aggregated version of this be like? Bad, as it turns out. Very bad. Gone was the narrated video without even a mention of its omission. Gone were the scientists’ pictures and the Earthling's Guide slideshow. But by far the most painful discovery was the line ratcheting up the anticipation for the reader: “That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago,” which was followed by the flat, linkless words: “(Listen to it here).” Where the word “here” was hyperlinked to the audio at the centerpiece of the story in the original, NYTimes.com version of the article, in this aggregator’s database it was merely four letters on a screen, leading nowhere.
What can libraries learn from these two consumer experiences of the same “article”? If born-digital content is what consumers want (and therefore expect), why are we providing them these aggregated simulacra? Can we continue to say, with a straight face, that we are providing access to publications like the NYT when the version we offer is so badly deprecated? Perhaps it is time to rethink the value of purchasing aggregated databases and instead look to purchase content in the format its creators’ intended.
What can we learn from user behavior?
Who among you would like to learn to navigate another platform? Isn’t it fun to find something of interest on the web, click on it, and then be whisked off to an unfamiliar, often poorly designed platform? You want the content, but standing in your way is the packaging. At this point you weigh the pros and cons of proceeding: based on what I know about the content, is it worth the effort of signing in or signing up for this platform? Do I think I’ll come back to this platform for other content in the future? Assuming I encounter difficulties navigating this platform, how much time am I willing to spend and what level of frustration am I willing to endure (Clarke, 2016)? Often we abort and return to the familiarity of our favorite search engine (Connaway, Dickey, & Radford, 2011). Sometimes the root problem is the sheer volume of platforms; other times it’s the poor design of the platforms that turns us off (Hanrahan, 2016). Either way, the medium prevents us from reaching the message.
What can libraries do about this? Increasingly, libraries are factoring ease of access and platform user experience design (UX) into their decisions about what content to purchase. If users can’t (or won’t) get to it, even the best content is valueless. But what if there was a universal platform that all consumers were already familiar with? What if libraries purchased “naked” content, without any accompanying platform, and then made it available on this universal platform?
The good news is that the universal platform already exists. It’s your browser. Chrome, FireFox, Safari, and IE are ubiquitous with users. Content providers like The New York Times, in my earlier example, have figured out how to maximize the capabilities of browsers to enhance the value of their content. A familiar platform with the capability to enhance the value of content may sound too good to be true, but it exists and is being utilized effectively outside the library industry. Could libraries play a role in encouraging the distribution of “naked” content and exposing it effectively via browsers with no intermediary platforms? Libraries have the metadata and expertise to create a powerful universal index. Libraries have the expertise to curate content the same way theSkimm curates news stories, thereby adding value for consumers. Vendors should view this idea in a positive light, as well. No longer obligated to build and maintain a platform, they stand to save money. And most important of all, consumers get easy access to the content they want without unnecessary layers of bad user interfaces (UI).
What can we learn from retailers?
Grocery stores have notoriously small margins, often hovering between 1 and 3% (Smith, 2008). Because of this, competition for market share is fierce. Convenience and rewards are two foci into which grocery stores have invested significant research and market testing. Anyone who shops can see the resulting services and consider how they have altered consumer expectations for all service providers. These newly formed consumer expectations aren’t left behind when shoppers push their cart out the automatic sliding doors. So how can libraries leverage these new services to meet library consumers’ expectations?
First, it is instructive to think about how grocery stores identify what consumers want. Grocery stores already know what you buy by tracking purchases and pooling data from external sources like credit card companies (Ferguson, 2013). But effectively pushing products you like is only productive if shoppers routinely return to your store. To entice loyalty - in this context the term meaning repeat business - grocery stores must set themselves apart from competitors. They can’t do this through unique products alone, for unique products can easily be copied. Their ability to distinguish themselves by price is limited, because margins are so small to begin with. They need to add value to their brand by making it more convenient to shop at their store than the store across the street.
Grocery stores take consumer personas seriously. They divide their customers and potential customers into personas like “Variety Seekers,” “Smart Shoppers,” “Gourmet Focus,” “Here we go again,” and “Fast and Furious” (Anonymous). For each of these personas, they list key attributes. For example, they know that “Here we go again” shoppers dread shopping and see it as a necessary chore. What can we do to appeal to these consumers, grocery stores ask. How about a service that lets them order online and pick-up their groceries curbside? If these shoppers learn about a Curbside Express service and competitors aren’t offering it, this grocery store has created customer loyalty within this persona.
What are the personas of your library consumers? Though it’s tempting to use traditional designations like Faculty and Undergraduate, or Adult and Juvenile, consumer personas should be based on behaviors, desires, and attitudes. They should be based on what the consumer persona does and what they care about. In an academic library you might identify personas like “Social Butterfly,” who wants access to good coffee, modular furniture, games, and who hates being shushed. “Solace Seekers,” who view the library as a quiet space to complete homework, will desire private space, limited distractions, comfortable seating, and quick access to a librarian. No matter what the personas you identify for your library, the outcome should be a detailed list of behaviors, desires and attitudes. Once you have identified a persona, you begin to see the library through their eyes and it is much easier to brainstorm services, spaces, and policies that will win their loyalty.
Grocery stores were also commercial pioneers in popularizing loyalty cards. These not only tracked the cardholder’s purchasing behavior, but provided targeted coupons, discounts, perks and insider news. Of course, library cards are almost as deeply ingrained a brand in our culture as libraries themselves. But our use of them has been limited to tracking loan activity, fines, and fees. How might libraries maximize the value of library cards to build additional consumer loyalty? We could offer rewards for using the library, checking in on social media, writing a review on Yelp, or recommending the library to a friend who signs up for a card. Could we produce insider newsletters and exclusive offers to active cardholders? Could we proactively notify customers when new items arrive that match their previous borrowing habits? None of these efforts would cost libraries much, but they stand to increase loyalty and meet consumer expectations.
Casual eateries have also invested heavily to create conveniences that build consumer loyalty. Chipotle and Panera, for example, make it incredibly easy to order food online and pick it up with minimal time spent waiting or paying. At Chipotle you simply have to tell them your name to claim your food; at Panera, your food will be waiting on something that looks very much like a book cart in the lobby area and no check-in is required to make off with your meal. In both cases these restaurants are capitalizing on intimate knowledge of their consumer personas to create experiences that will appeal to them. Considering these express services in the context of libraries, how could we make getting resources as easy as ordering a burrito? Could we make it easy for library consumers to order resources on the go, from their phone? Do we have express lanes for the pick-up of physical items? What about bringing resources to our consumers? How could we provide full-service catering of resources delivered to the classroom? Can we anticipate information needs? We know what courses students are enrolled in and professors are teaching. Could we proactively recommend content to students based on the courses they are enrolled in? Could we proactively recommend course materials to faculty members based on similar courses taught elsewhere?
What can we learn from the ways we eat?
Not all library services revolve around content. Reference and instruction librarians more closely align with educators. Their role is to teach library consumers how to search for and assess resources and then how to apply them effectively to their information need. Just as in the classroom teachers can change lives by imparting critical knowledge and skills to students, reference and instruction libraries can impact the lives of students or community members by showing them how to open doors they never knew existed. A great teacher is revered and remembered by his or her students. But what about those who don’t want to be students? Or don’t have time to be students? They have information needs, but they can’t or won’t make the time investment to learn information literacy skills. How should we serve these library consumers? For a clue, we can look to the various ways we eat.
Some people enjoy cooking. At some point in their lives they invested the time and effort to learn the necessary skills to prepare food. Perhaps they learned from a parent or roommate, or perhaps they watched TV chefs or took cooking classes. Regardless of where they learned to cook, these people decided they would commit the time and effort necessary to prepare food for themselves. The benefits are many: they can cook whatever they want, select only those ingredients up to their standards, and prepare the dish exactly as they prefer. In library terms, these are the equivalent of the library consumers who attend our instruction classes, express keen interest in learning the skills we impart, take notes, ask questions, and leave fulfilled and armed with the skills necessary to find and assess information. For years libraries have excelled at teaching people how to cook.
But not everyone knows how to cook, as we can all attest. Some people have no interest in learning to cook, yet must eat. The food industry caters to these people in the form of restaurants. While restaurants do not require that the diner participate in the cooking process, they do expect the diner to provide input about the food that’s to be prepared for them, as well as how it should be prepared. All of which is to emphasize that there is some level of investment required to dine out. “Which side dish would you like?” “How would you like that prepared?” This all takes time, as does the wait between ordering and being served. While dining out preserves many of the same benefits of cooking in, some aspects of control are lost: choice is limited to what’s on the menu, the quality of ingredients is left to someone else’s judgment, and no matter what your instructions, preparation can vary. In library terms, these diners are the equivalent to library consumers willing to engage in a 1-on-1 reference session. They aren’t willing, or they don’t have time, to attend an instruction class to learn the skills to do the research themselves, but they are willing to place an order and wait for the results to be served. For years libraries have excelled at performing reference interviews and serving up relevant information.
Finally, there are those for whom dining out is unthinkable. This is not to say they never dine out. Rather, they find themselves in a circumstance that demands faster, more prescriptive service. It could be a traveller running through an airport terminal to catch her next flight. It could be a single parent of three late to the next extracurricular afterschool drop off. These people probably enjoy dining out and perhaps they love to cook for themselves, but circumstances have rendered those options impossible. And yet they, too, must eat. The food industry knows this, has recognized this consumer persona, and created services like grab-and-go shops in airports and drive through windows in fast food restaurants. These services offer a bargain; in exchange for the diner giving up control over the quality, variety, and preparation of the food, they preserve the commodity most precious to them - time. This is an opportunity area for libraries. What would grab-and-go reference service look like? It is not a LibGuide, which is merely a recipe for cooking on your own. Perhaps it is a collection of curated content (not resources) on common topics. Perhaps it is an App that allows library consumers to fill out a brief “order” on their phones describing their information need. When they click the “finish” button, the order is delivered to a reference librarian and the consumer gets an estimated delivery time of 30 minutes. When that time has passed, the consumer receives a notification that relevant content is ready for them to view online. Would such a service teach library consumers how to conduct research? No. But not everyone wants to be a scholar, just as not everyone wants to be a chef. Though everyone needs to eat.
Bringing the Outside In
To take a fresh look at library services through the lens of other industries yields two conclusions.
- We know what library consumers want because we know what we want as consumers.
- Libraries have some daunting competition.
With hope, we realize that consumers are consumers and all the knowledge we have as a consumer ourselves, as well as the knowledge gleaned from everyone we know about their experiences as consumers, is 100% applicable to library services. The inner desires of patrons aren’t so unknowable after all; we need only look to broad trends in consumer expectations to know what people like and therefore what they come to expect. With trepidation we realize that consumers’ expectations don’t suddenly decrease when they walk into a library. Rather, their expectations of your library are as high as they are for infinitely better-funded service providers. We understand, then, that libraries face a significant challenge. Consumer expectations are not fixed. The best service experience a consumer has ever had will become his or her expectation for all service providers going forward. And why not? Once you know something can be done, why not expect it to be done by all providers? This phenomena places enormous pressure on libraries to match services offered by far better-funded businesses.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. Funding does not equal success just as money does not equal happiness. Well-funded businesses make boneheaded decisions and fail spectacularly on a regular basis. The advantages libraries have over other businesses are (a) our tradition of partnership with one another and with other organizations; (b) our brand recognition, historic though it may be; (c) our culture of openly sharing our successes and failures to help fellow libraries; and (d) our awareness that good ideas to improve library services are all around us, waiting to be adopted.
Be a trendspotter. Teach yourself to become more self-aware of the services you like, even seemingly small services like bagged packages on your doorstep. Ask others, especially young people, what services they like. Don’t assume that the things you appreciate as a consumer have no relationship to library services. Consumers are consumers, and that fact opens up infinite possibilities for us to try out in the form of new services based on what we see succeed in other industries. Adopting these ideas stands to make libraries more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported.
Angwin, J. (2010, August 19). Tracking The Companies That Track You Online. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129298003
Anonymous. (n.d.). Market Segmentation Examples for Retailers. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.segmentationstudyguide.com/segmentation-bases/segmentation-ba...
Clarke, M. (2016, May 4). Accessing Publisher Resources via a Mobile Device: A User’s Journey. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/05/04/accessing-publisher-resou...
Connaway, L. S., Dickey, T. J., & Radford, M. L. (2011). “If It Is Too Inconvenient, I’m Not Going After It:” Convenience as a C ritical Factor in I nformation -seeking Behaviors. Library and Information Science Research, 33, 179-190. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2011/conna...
Ferguson, D. (2013, June 8). How supermarkets get your data – and what they do with it. The Guardian. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/jun/08/supermarkets-get-your-data
Hanrahan, K. (2016, March 28). There’s No Such Thing as Platform Fatigue—There Are Only Bad Platforms. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://switchboardhq.com/blog/theres-no-such-thing-as-platform-fatigue-t...
Madrigal, A. C. (2012, February 29). I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/im-being-followed-...
Overbye, D. (2016, February 11). Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory. The New York times. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black...
Smith, S. V. (2008, April 8). Rising prices a supermarket challenge. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.marketplace.org/2008/04/08/business/rising-prices-supermarket...
Steel, E., & Angwin, J. (2010, August 4). On the Web's Cutting Edge, Anonymity in Name Only. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703294904575385532109190198
Sterling, G. (2014, September 29). With Atlas Online-to-Offline Conversion Tracking Goes Mainstream. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://screenwerk.com/2014/09/29/facebook-atlas-and-online-to-offline-co...
Raleigh, NC—NC LIVE, North Carolina’s statewide public and academic library consortium, has added 980 new ebooks to Home Grown, a collection of fiction and nonfiction works from North Carolina-based publishers. The new additions were purchased with the generous donations of North Carolina libraries and feature a wide variety of titles, including novels by popular North Carolina authors, poetry, young adult, short stories and nonfiction. Readers may enjoy new titles such as And West is West by Ron Childress, Southern Tailgating Cookbook by Taylor Mathis and many more. The ebooks are available to all North Carolina citizens via the NC LIVE website, http://nclive.org/ebooks , and library websites throughout the state.
All Home Grown ebooks have unlimited, simultaneous user access, meaning that classrooms, book clubs, or any other groups can access the same ebook at the same time. They are a permanent part of the NC LIVE collection and can be accessed by anyone with a library card. Users can view the ebooks in a web browser, or download them to their tablet device via the BiblioBoard Library app.
NC LIVE partnered with six local publishing houses to provide the ebooks in this newest addition to the collection, including Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Crossroad Press, John F. Blair Publishing, McFarland & Company, Press 53 and UNC Press. The Home Grown collection started as a NC LIVE pilot project in 2014 with 1,200 ebooks and has since grown to over 2,200 with these most recent additions. If you are a member library with any questions or comments, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
About NC LIVE
NC LIVE is a statewide library consortium that provides shared digital content and services to North Carolina’s community colleges, public libraries, the UNC System, and NC Independent Colleges and Universities. Patrons of NC LIVE’s 201 member libraries may access eBooks, magazines, newspapers, journals, streaming videos, and more online via library websites, and through www.nclive.org.
NCSU Libraries, CB #7111
Raleigh, NC 2765
Editor’s Note: I am pleased to share the NC LIVE blog spotlight with guest blogger Andrew Pace. Andrew and I worked together at OCLC and, during that time, I was continually impressed by Andrew’s passion, focus, and tenacity in overcoming the inevitable obstacles associated with building a complex service for a complex market. Andrew arrived at OCLC from NCSU and, in the post below, shares some of the formative lessons learned during his stint in North Carolina. – Rob Ross
In my mind, I’m still in Carolina
Recently, I blogged about my 20th year as a professional librarian. I gave short shrift to North Carolina as a very formative part of what I hope is only half a career. I thought maybe the NC LIVE blog might be a better platform for a little Carolina love.
My colleagues, including Rob Ross, will tell you that I have an annoying habit of tracing all great accomplishments in library land back to North Carolina. But at Rob’s urging, this got me thinking about the lessons I took from my 9 years there in the IT department at NCSU Libraries. The following list isn’t meant to be a recipe for success. If I had one of those, I’d use it all the time. Instead, these are just some general rules that started in NC and have matured over the years.
1. Solve real problems.
“Wanna see something cool?” is still the most dangerous phrase in IT. Since libraries typically lag just slightly behind the technological curve, we’re sometimes late to the party when it comes to new trends and solutions. As such, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having a solution that is looking for a problem. Instead, librarians should use their intimate familiarity with library problems and start there. Starting with the problem and not the solution is always better.
For example. Federated search or metasearch was not a problem. The problem was consortial collection development and resource sharing across libraries. Finding better ways to share led to better solutions. Had UNC, TRLN, or NC LIVE started with the tools available, the solution would have been much harder to attain.
2. Lead from the front.
If you have an idea or a passion, you have to own it. Yes, you will stand on the shoulders of giants. Yes, it takes a village. Blah, blah, blah…save it for your speech at the award ceremony. Reluctance to lead from the front is simply fear of failure. Get over it. Due to our altruistic nature, we tend to look out the window of success and into the mirror of failure. But the key characteristic of a successful project is a visible and vocal advocate…earnest, passionate, even dogged in his or her desire to see dream become reality.
Elliot Ness (K. Costner) to Al Capone (R. Deniro) in The Untouchables
I’ve tried to lead on many fronts, OPACs (and the death of that very word), Electronic Resource Management, Standards, Library Service Platforms. Some of these efforts can take years. I first wrote about dismantling the ILS in February 2004. WorldShare Management Services launched as the first cloud-based library platform in the summer of 2011. But I did my best to stay at the front of that effort the entire time (and to this day).
3. Deal with the closest alligator to the boat.
I stole this phrase from my operations manager at NCSU Libraries, Rob Main. As I would drop yet another problem on Rob, he’d often ask me, “Is this the closest alligator to our boat?” Rob was good at multi-tasking, but he was even better at prioritizing. Not all of us have the luxury of separating development and future-thinking from day-to-day operations. If the alligators are climbing in your boat, it might be a good idea to ignore the one on the shore.
Library land has lots of examples of ignoring the circling gators in favor of headier and more distant problems. One of my great honors is coining the phrase “The OPAC Sucks.” My mother is so proud. This early library meme led to lots of articles, speaking engagements, a great blog series by Karen Schneider (part 1, part 2, part 3), and even a theme song on Youtube. But setting the historical record straight, here’s what I actually said at the 2005 ALA Midwinter Top Tech Trends Panel: “There’s so much talk about portals, metasearch, learning objects—the list goes on—that we have been distracted from the fact that the OPAC still sucks.” In other words, “Look, that alligator is waaaay closer to the boat.”
Just three lessons from a rewarding 9 years spent in North Carolina. I’ll continue to trace as much as I can back to that great state.
Andrew K. Pace is Executive Director of WorldShare Community Development at OCLC, leading new efforts to scale and accelerate library learning, research and innovation by building more effective OCLC advisory groups, facilitating deeper library community engagement, and managing the OCLC Community Center.
Performance Reviews: The bad and the good
This is the third in a series of posts on how to build a great team.
For many, this is performance review season, the annual ceremony that direct reports fear and managers loathe. Those up for review dread being assessed - judged, if we use the word that more accurately reflects how the ceremony makes us feel. Those delivering the reviews are equally wary. They face a minefield of potential unintended consequences. It’s no wonder so many of us try to put the things off. I had a peer who was habitually a year late in giving reviews to her team! What follows are observations, lessons learned and tips on being reviewed and reviewing others.
Why we don’t like them
We are open to certain feedback
People are fond of saying they are open to feedback. At work; in relationships; as you bite into their overcooked salmon at a dinner party. But what they really mean is that they are open to hearing positive feedback. They tend to be less open to feedback that is less than flattering.
Underpinning the anxiety of a performance review is a basic human aversion to being judged. From the dawn of time there have been dire consequences to being judged harshly. As a result, we are conditioned to be cautious when entering a situation where we will be assessed. Often the caution far outweighs the potential danger, and this holds true for performance reviews: Physiologically, we are in fight or flight mode when, in fact, the worst thing that is likely to happen is our boss says we need to improve.
When performance reviews are tied to promotion or salary raises, the dread increases tenfold. In this scenario one person’s judgment impacts a direct report’s livelihood. With adrenaline flowing and heart rate elevated, it should not be surprising if a direct report behaves defensively or emotionally. For some, a performance review is the fulcrum between their work life and their personal life, its outcome impacting them and their families in material ways.
Complicating the review process is the fact that everyone responds to personal critiques differently. I once gave two individuals very similar assessments. One left the room energized and focused, having accepted my challenge to improve in a particular competency. An hour later the second individual left the room in tears. Same feedback; different results.
The bad and the good
Strive for balance
Lest anyone think that managers enjoy the review process, consider their dilemma. If you judge average and weak performers too leniently, you tacitly encourage them to (a) remain in the organization and (b) continue performing at their current level. What’s more, their high-performing coworkers will feel demoralized when they see that their own standards are higher than those set by their manager. Judge top performers too leniently and you risk starving them of opportunities to grow professionally. Top performers tend to be development-hungry; if you don’t challenge them to improve they feel starved. Counterintuitively, by heaping praise upon them without accompanying opportunities to grow, you will drive them to seek a more challenging opportunity elsewhere. On the other hand, judge your team too harshly and you risk breaking your team’s spirit, leading them to believe that their worklife is doomed to be a Sisyphean existence. No matter what they do, they cannot satisfy the boss. Consequently, they will do as little as possible until they find an exit strategy.
Performance reviews are designed to be one-sided, which makes them inconducive to productive dialogue. At its worst, a manager walks away from the review feeling heard and effective, while the direct report walks away fuming because he or she had no opportunity to express his or her perspective. This is one of the primary reasons experts advocate so strongly for ongoing feedback throughout the year between manager and direct report. These less formal check-ins are much more conducive to candid, two-way communication. The stakes are lower; the venue is more casual; and there is no HR template sitting on the table between you. If feedback has been honest and ongoing throughout the year, the one-sidedness of the formal review isn’t as problematic because the direct report will have already had plenty of opportunities to share his or her perspective.
Living to work or working to live
There are many amusing “principles” about how various groups view work. We all know people whose entire identity is tied to their position. We all know others who simply slide by without ever letting work stress them out. Everyone is somewhere on this spectrum and it behooves managers to figure out how their direct reports view work in the broader context of their life. Some individuals crave responsibility. Some simply want a raise. Some want to make a difference in the world. Without knowing what makes a direct report tick, a manager will use a one size fits all model for reviewing and motivating their team members. A generous raise given to someone who wants to make a difference will certainly be appreciated, but it won’t increase their motivation.
The card says Moops
Criticizing the performance review templates themselves is popular sport, but in my experience they are all the same even in their differences. Besides, their deficiencies serve a valuable purpose: Finding faults in them is a cathartic opportunity for both manager and managed to relieve their mutual anxiety about the judgment ceremony by eviscerating an inanimate, bureaucratic artifact.
A good review begins with good goals
Useful performance reviews begin with well-constructed goals. There are many helpful models for writing goals. I prefer the SMART goals model, which demands that every goal be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I’ve read many well-intentioned goals that were useless to me in assessing someone because they lacked a due-date, or specific success criteria, or were unrealistic. As a manager, the rigor of goal-writing models keeps you honest and prevents you from assigning goals that, a year later, neither you nor your direct report will be able to declare successful or unsuccessful with any objective certainty. As a direct report, the same rigor protects you by ensuring that you will be judged on your performance against a clear, realistic, well-defined set of goals.
Eye of the beholder and the free market
When you’re alone in a room with your boss, listening to him or her judge you, it’s easy to overestimate the objective validity of their opinion. They may be your boss, but they are still just one person and their opinion of you may not be shared by others. This works both ways: A boss who thinks you walk on water may overvalue you, just as a boss who thinks you are inadequate may not represent the views of others. I’ve seen untouchables laid off when they began reporting to another boss who valued them differently and I’ve seen unappreciated individuals rise quickly after a change in leadership. The point? If you believe your boss undervalues you, test your hypothesis by applying for other interesting positions. The market will tell you whether or not you were right. If, though, you receive similar feedback from multiple bosses, odds are their valuation of you is valid.
Occasionally, performance reviews are awesome
Despite the many problematic aspects of the review process, sometimes they can be a delight. Most of us thrive on praise and recognition, and when a high performer is being reviewed, it can be a restorative experience for both parties. As the boss, you have a formal opportunity to praise the person’s accomplishments and explain how you feel their skills contributed to their success so that they gain more self-awareness about how and when to apply particular skills to particular scenarios. You also get to reset your expectations of them for next year. On the heels of every promotion I’ve received, I was been given a new charge outside my comfort zone. “Way to go. Now, here’s what I need you to do this year.” As the high performer, you get to feel good about your contributions and reflect on their impact to the organization. As information professionals, we don’t often give ourselves time to self-reflect, instead rushing from one project to the next. The formality of the review process forces you to think about the past year and what impact you have made. Try to enjoy it. Review season only comes once a year.
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Job Seeking: Career Search Strategies Using ReferenceUSA
Attendees will learn how to use ReferenceUSA as part of their career searching strategy. Included will be information on the importance of having accurate information for applications and resumes, creating engaging cover letters, assembling a network of references and referrers, finding key individuals at a business to act as mentors, building data sets of potential employers based on skill set, work history, and preferences, and preparing for interviews and interactions thorough research. We will also explore the Jobs & Internship module, which adds a new dimension to job searching.
ReferenceUSA’s Search Essentials
Designed for anyone new to using our database, this hour-long session will cover all the basics of getting started with ReferenceUSA. We will cover the four essentials anyone, particularly those new to ReferenceUSA, will want to know in order to successfully use the resource. This is also a great opportunity for current users to learn some new tips, tricks, and techniques. Plenty of time will be reserved at the end of the session for questions.
People Seeking People
Designed to help users find people using the same tools Private Investigators do, this session will cover all the basics of pinpointing the right people. We’ll cover how to identify individuals choosing from dozens of search selections that include both demographic and firmographic information. Learn new tips, tricks, and techniques that will help you identify the people you’re looking for, fast.
Starting a Business
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Designed for business to consumer companies and their sales reps. This webinar will demonstrate:
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How to Research/Find a Doctor or Dentist
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